Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Beyond the Norm

As far as the tree in the park is concerned, it’s just another day. But we humans give it a name and a number and load it down with extra weight. Why should my thoughts be any different today than last week? But with two days left before the planet completes its circle around the sun since January 1stof last year, I keep feeling some need to add up each of the 363 days I’ve been privileged to live through and come up with some special meaning to the sum. 


Today I gave an online music workshop to the same folks in Iran who I taught back in June. Back then, they had a sketchy online program where I couldn’t see anyone, but now they’ve graduated to Zoom and it felt like home territory. A great pleasure to see the lovely faces of these lovely people, women still with scarves covering heads because someone decided long ago that’s that how it’s supposed to be, enough people—well, men—agreed and our propensity to keep traditions of any sorts going continues to feed the perception that this must be the norm. Until one day it isn’t. 


I watched White Christmas last night, a similar choice to Holiday Inn but easier to take because there’s no scene in blackface. Yet still, they sang a song “I’d rather see a Minstrel Show, then any other kind of show I know” complete with dance number and some jokes and patter from Mr. Bones, a stock character in the early Minstrel Shows. The bad news is that this normalized Minstrel Shows as a valid form of entertainment. The good news is that 12 years after Holiday Inn (1942),which had a number with Bing Crosby (and others) in blackface, this time (1954) he wasn’t, in spite of the Minstrel Show theme. That was a change, long overdue, but significant nonetheless. What had been the norm finally wasn’t. 


The opening scene of the movie was a World War II scene, the usual soldiers with guns and a few nights ago in the excellent Danish series Borgen, there was a scene with soldiers in Afghanistan. Looking at both of them, I was struck with the thought that it’s so weird that human beings kill people they don’t know because of an idea and because someone high up tells them too and because that’s what they’re trained to do. Just looked at this human norm throughout all of history with the eyes of an innocent child thinking,  “Really? Humans do this? Why? “


How much of our lives are run by some random cultural decision of what is considered “normal.”? The word itself comes from a geometrical source, meaning “standing at a right angle; perpendicular” and is related to a carpenter’s square. How interesting that the beatniks and jazz fans called their unenlightened peers in the 50’s “squares.” Their whole lives lived at perfectly measured right angles and unable to deal with the nuance of unexpected angles or music or life lived “offbeat.” The word evolved to mean “conforming to common standards or established order or usage.”


I appreciate common standards as much as the next person and certainly in this pandemic time, crave some sense of return to normal. But it’s always worth asking “Who established these common standards and for what purpose and who gave them the power to decide and how do they benefit?” And it’s also worth considering how much of life’s pleasures occur outside the measured norm. 


In my first sentence, I had no idea where I was going, but I seem to have landed in the meaning of the sum of my days— a life lived often outside the norm, going to Buddhist retreats in an old boy scout camp in the mountains, to Bulgaria to get a bit further along on Bulgarian bagpipe, to school each day playing on the floor with kids of all ages for 45 years (and still able to get up off the floor!). Feels fitting that this year ended with a Zoom workshop with music teachers in Iran who I would have met in Armenia this Fall and still may in the future.


That is, if we return to normal.  

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